Mar 27, 2014

Oromo: Ethiopian Government Spies On Opponents Using Modern Technology

Human Rights Watch reports that the Ethiopian Government is using European and Chinese surveillance technology to spy on opposition party members, political dissidents and journalists. The ethnic Oromo population has been especially is targeted. 

Below is an article published by Mashable

The Ethiopian government is using European and Chinese surveillance technology to spy on its political opponents, a new report suggests.

The Human Rights Watch report accused the government of spying on citizens' phone calls and Internet activity. It details how Ethiopia's ruling party intercepts cellphone communications and emails, censors websites and harasses opposition bloggers and Facebook users — all with the help of technology made in Germany, Italy, China and the UK.

Intercepted communications have been used to crack down on opposition party members, political dissidents, journalists and young members of the ethnic Oromo population, according to the report published on Tuesday [25 March 2014].

Although the scale of Ethiopia's surveillance capabilities is limited, the government's infringement remains significant, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.

"The historic fear of ordinary Ethiopians of questioning their government and the perception of pervasive surveillance serves the same purpose: It silences independent voices and limits freedom of speech and opinion," according to the report, which was written by researchers Felix Horne and Cynthia Wong.

In the report, Horne and Wong included specific examples of surveillance victims. In one instance, an unidentified Oromo man recounted what happened when he was arrested. The authorities knew everyone he had communicated with through his cellphone, and even described conversations he had with his friends and associates in detail.

"'If you are talking through this telephone, we record all conversations,'" the authorities told him, according to the report.

Wong told Mashable that both Internet access and cellphone use in Ethiopia is limited, but added that the Ethiopian government is quickly acquiring surveillance capabilities that will allow it to monitor citizens in the future the Ethiopian government is quickly acquiring surveillance capabilities that will allow it to monitor citizens in the future, when adoption will be more widespread.

The government achieves much of its surveillance capabilities by controlling Ethio Telecom, the only telecom provider in Ethiopia, which gives it "virtually unlimited access" to all phone calls within the country "without any legal process or oversight," the report read.

But it allegedly gets a hand from foreign companies as well.

Chinese tech giants ZTE and Huawei have been contracted to upgrade Ethiopia's telecom infrastructure. The Ethiopian government has also purchased Internet surveillance products from companies such as Hacking Team and Gamma International, which sell spy software only to governments. The governments, in turn, can use the software to hack into a target's computer, and covertly record almost anything he or she does on it.

Recently, Ethiopian officials allegedly used Hacking Team spyware to hack into the computers of Ethiopian journalists in the United States and Europe. Previously, researchers with nonprofit research centre Citizen Lab alleged that similar software made by Gamma International was used to spy on members of Ginbot 7, an exiled pro-democracy party that the Ethiopian government has labeled a terrorist group.

Hacking Team has repeatedly said it has internal mechanisms in place to ensure its clients use its software "legally and responsibly." But Wong said she thinks these companies need to be held responsible for what governments do with their products.

"If you look at a country like Ethiopia where they have a pretty long history of human-rights abuses, if there are credible reports of abusive surveillance practices in the country, then the companies have a clear responsibility to investigate, and if necessary, stop support of all of their products with that government," she told Mashable. "Otherwise, they risk being complicit in those human-rights abuses."

Currently, the export of these technologies is unregulated. Although some countries have agreed to extend an export control regime — known as the Wassenaar Agreement — to spyware, the countries that are part of it, including the U.S., UK, France and Germany, still have to adopt the agreement's rules to their respective laws.

The Ethiopian government dismissed the HRW report unfair, and accused it of "mudslinging." "This is one of the issues that [HRW] has in the list of its campaigns to smear Ethiopia's image, so there is nothing new to respond to it, because there is nothing new to it," Redwan Hussein, Ethiopia's information minister, told the AFP.

The report was prepared between September 2012 and February 2014, and is based on more than 100 interviews with victims and former intelligence officials.